Art history and me

| Penny Wickson, Chair of the Association for Art History Schools Group |

Given my family background it may not seem surprising that I should have studied art history at university. My father read History and was a Headmaster and my mother became a textile artist after leaving her job as a medical secretary to study for her City and Guilds Certificate in Creative Embroidery. My Italian grandmother was apprenticed to Lachasse at the age of 14 after Camden Council recognised her extraordinary talent for needlework and she went on to work for the likes of Cecil Beaton, Norman Hartnell, Victor Stiebel and the renowned costumiers Bermans. Yet although I knew in my early teens that I wanted to study art history, this path was not immediately obvious to either my family or my school. Whilst I was fortunate in that education was prized at home, I developed my passion for art history entirely on my own.

My teenage self was unsophisticated: in Lower V she had her first Saturday job in a cake shop and didn’t board a plane until she was 17 and embarked on a school trip to Greece. There is no doubt that the French exchange to Paris was formative, however rather than opportunities to visit European galleries and museums, we took canal holidays (though these did provide valuable reading time). Probably the only contribution that my parents made in developing my interest in art history was buying me Gombrich’s Story of Art and a second hand copy of Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner which led me to read all her novels, and order a prospectus from The Courtauld Institute of Art. Like numerous teenagers I created my own worlds which were fueled by trips to the public library in Chester and visits alone to the regional collections of Liverpool, Merseyside and Manchester.

My academic girls’ school was cautious and steered me towards History or English as university options and the closest I could get to A Level art history was Classical Civilisation, which I studied alongside English, History and French. Although I was good at art my literary and historical skills were stronger – yet there is no doubt that I was inspired by the exceptionally high calibre of art that the school was known for. The outstanding GCSE Art work of fellow pupil and successful shoe designer and St Martins’ graduate Esme Ertekin – based on her love of Acid House and her visits to the Hacienda club – remain indelibly etched in my mind to this day and provided a welcome beacon of vibrant creativity within a narrow and at times stifling provincial environment.

When it came to my university destination fate would intervene as I narrowly missed my Cambridge offer to read English, and instead went to Birmingham to read History. Given my love of underground dance music and Hip-Hop culture this was a far more suitable choice and brought me closer to my persistent dream of studying art history. Eventually the lure of a small but perfectly formed department and the magnificent collection of the Barber Institute and its glamorous Art Deco building proved too great and I changed to History of Art and Italian. This was the best decision that I could have possibly made. At that time the University of Birmingham did not offer single honours History of Art but there is no question that studying Italian accelerated my progress and helped me gain a First as I was able to read texts and sources in the original language. Knowledge of French and German also led to the higher marks that I needed to help secure the funding that would enable me to pursue postgraduate study, despite having secured a job with the West Bromwich Building Society.

In many ways I regard missing my Cambridge offer as a narrow escape. As someone with a ‘spiked profile’ History of Art was a revelation: I discovered that I possessed exceptional visual skills. I had also found a subject which, due to its interdisciplinary focus, drew on all my interests whilst opening my eyes to new ones such as Psychology and Economics. Art history permeated my undergraduate life in all manner of ways. Discovering the Feminist art history of Linda Nochlin and Griselda Pollock helped me to reconsider some of my personal choices and relationships, whilst critical theory gave me the tools to analyse the unequal power webs that I was seeing all around me in a big multi-racial, industrial city.

Due to its sensory vitality and gripping narratives, art history also brought me joy. It is a subject unlike no other in terms of the social and vocational opportunities that it brings. It has always piqued the interest of potential employers at all levels, and it was useful in Jaeger and the promotional work selling perfume that I needed to do in order to supplement the departmental and AHRC funding that I had secured (like many students my parents were not in a position to support me).

However, whilst I knew how fortunate I was to have won such prestigious awards (which also included a Leverhulme scholarship) I found the experience of postgraduate study insular at times and occasionally self-indulgent. I was well aware of a world that existed beyond that of Academia and I was also aware that I possessed pastoral skills that could combine well with art history. I was immersed in the vibrant and compelling dance music culture of the 1990s and it was this which inspired my long standing commitment to widening access to art history. There seemed no end to the possible ways in which art history could intersect with life beyond university.

I became involved in the Widening Access Programme at the University of Birmingham which was being spearheaded by Post-Doctoral researcher Richard Clay, now Professor of Digital Humanities and regular TV presenter. One of my most powerful experiences was spending a morning in the Barber gallery with Afro-Caribbean students who were on the verge of total exclusion from the education system; these young people were captivated and defied all possible stereotypes in terms of how they responded to the art and what they were drawn to.

As a result of the work experience I carried out at Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery I became friends with the poet and cultural anthropologist Dr Roi Kwabena. I subsequently went with him to inner-city schools to talk about the importance of education whilst showing how it could still sit very comfortably alongside the drum’n’bass culture that provided the soundtrack to my studies. At this time I was also volunteering as a Young Women’s Educational Support Worker at a rape crisis centre and again I saw how the exploration of images and the lives of women artists could empower survivors of rape and sexual abuse and help them feel less isolated and alienated.

Years of volunteering and part-time work certainly helped me gain my first full-time job in an all girls’ boarding school. One’s first major job is always foundational and although the world that I was now moving in could not have been more different from the one I had left in Birmingham I found the need for art history to be just as great – it really was a subject that had the potential to transform lives. I was also fortunate enough to work for a year in a Pupil Referral Unit. Thanks to the flexibility and foresight of the local council I helped support young people there study A Level Art, History of Art and Contextual Studies, to It is thanks to the vision of the PRU Unit that one of my students went on to gain a degree in Art History, an MA in Fine Art and a further MA in Art Librarianship. Their father was a builder. They were the first member of the family to go to university.

At my current school Art History continues to embolden both the highly intellectual and those for who school is a challenge. Due to its interdisciplinary focus, demand for sensitivity and visual literacy as well as academic rigour it can provide hope – as it did for me as I was not a person who could easily be classified. I am no longer a young teacher and next year marks the anniversary of 20 years of teaching this extraordinary subject. I recall my very first INSET well as I encountered a teacher who was delivering art history in a prison. I have never forgotten this and my vision is to widen access even further as this subject has so much to offer everyone from every sector of society.

Art history has enabled me to keep going through all the twists and turns of life and has never been irreconcilable with my other passion: music. How uncanny then that on the eve of Ways of Seeing 2016 I should receive a message from acclaimed DJ, producer and Mercury Prize winner Roni Size thanking me for my continued support. Life really has come full circle (or should I say Full Cycle, a nod to Roni’s record label of nearly 25 years) and I have art history to thank for that.


You can hear Penny Wickson speak about art, war and her favourite Drum’n’Bass tracks at this year’s Ways of Seeing conference at the National Gallery, London on Saturday 25 November.